11 November is the feast day of San Martino. St Martin started out his life as a Roman soldier, following the footsteps of his father into the Imperial Army. However, he was later baptised and became a monk, living a simple life as a friend to children and patron of the poor. The 11th November also marks the end of the agricultural year and beginning of the harvest. Historically, it was the period when the peasants would settle their dues following the harvest and re-establish the farming contracts for the following year.
In many parts of Italy, small towns and villages maintain these traditions and celebrate the 11th November with local festivals, special celebrations and traditional dishes. In her book, Il Bel Centro, Michelle Damiani provides a wonderful account of the celebrations for the Feast of San Martino in Spello. We are so pleased that she has allowed us to share an extract from this as she describes the festivities so much better than we could. Michelle really does perfectly bring the sounds and flavours of the feast to life, allowing those who have never had the pleasure to experience it, to get a real taste for the event.
“My crush on San Martino begins with an odd sound that impels us all to look up, startled. Are those bells? They sound older, heavier, and smaller than our neighborhood church bells. With a start, we realize they’re the bells of the tiny 13th century chapel that is on the corner where our road meets Arturo’s alley. La Capella di San Martino. We momentarily puzzle at the sound, then go back to our lives. A few minutes later, we hear the bells again. Curious now, we peer over our loggia to investigate. Candles line our street into the church’s courtyard. Siena points out a candle on our stoop. It calls to us, an invitation. Out of our house, into the gloaming, and up the street. Where Arturo is waiting. He tells us that this is the celebration to honor San Martino. I asked if the festa is for congregants of the church, and he laughs. “No, è per tutti.” It is for everyone. Seeing the men setting the olive branches in the grills alight, and the women laying out tables with cups of wine, I ask if there’s a fee to attend. He says no, but shows me a jar where I can donate a few euros for the poor. I deposit the euros in my pocket, and turn to Arturo who is explaining the story of San Martino to my family clustered around him. Long ago, Martino, a Roman soldier raised in Hungary, was riding his horse through the countryside, when he came upon a poor man, shivering in the autumn cold. Martino climbed off his horse, ripped his cape down the middle, and handed a half to the man. That night, he dreamed that Jesus appeared to him, wearing half the cape. The vision prompted Martino to abandon the army and be baptized. And now, San Martino is celebrated with autumnal foods—roasted chestnuts, bruschette with new olive oil, new wine (vino novello), and sausage. The simple story finished, I realize that the old men from the neighborhood are huddled around us, their eyes full of expectation. I smile to show I understand the story, and the men lead us to the grills, sending the scents of wood-smoke, sizzling sausages, and roasting chestnuts into the night air. And underneath these earthy aromas there’s a hint of incense drifting from the thrown back doors of the chapel. Golden light spills from the tiny church onto the cobblestones, polished by hundreds of years of Spellani footfalls. Arturo and his friends hand us bags of warm chestnuts, and order us to taste the garlicky bruschette with good, green olive oil. I tell the men that Umbrian bread is perfetto for bruschette. The men widen their eyes in appreciation. And it’s true, the bread’s denseness stands up to grilling, and it soaks up olive oil “like a boss,” as Nicolas says. To drink there is vin brûlé—warm wine with sugar, orange peel, and cinnamon—and cups of robust new Sagrantino wine. The men lead us back to the grill and hand us plates with sausage, sizzled and crisp, leaking juice that is caught by the bread. I laugh as I polish off my sandwich, licking my fingers clean. The men laugh too, and then hand us cups full of mele cotte, baked apples. I begin to dip my spoon into the apples, but one of the men snatches back my bowl and asks the woman pouring vin brûlé to drizzle a spoonful over the apples. Obediently, the rest of the family hands their bowls to garnish, and then luxuriate in the warm and rich apples, enlivened with tart raisins. My belly warm, I pronounce every- thing excellent, and the men smile and pat my shoulder. One informs me that there is no bad Italian food. To which another quips, “Solo italiani cattivi.” Only bad Italians. We all laugh.”
Italy has a host of other wonderful feast days throughout the year and it’s always a fantastic addition to any holiday if you can combine your travel dates with one of the many celebrations taking place. Please contact Bookings For You to find out more details of festivals taking place during your holiday in Italy. Alternatively, if Michelle Damiani has tempted you to experience the Feast of San Martino for yourself, then why not take a look at this wonderful 2 bedroom villa within Spello’s city walls, just a short walk from the centre of the action. And don’t miss the opportunity to download a copy of her novel, Il Bel Centro, to hear more about the things to see and do in Spello and further afield.